Is social media the greatest invention of the 21st century — or the newest way we’re putting ourselves and our families in danger? While the digital future promises connection that is faster, brighter, easier and more fun, it comes without a safety manual. How are we to know what’s making our lives more convenient and what’s actually making us miserable?
We’ve been here before. At the end of the 19th century, the automobile burst on the scene and revolutionized life in the Gilded Age. Cars shaped how our communities developed and brought with them the power to connect us like never before. They also ushered in a new reality of accidents, pedestrian fatalities and reckless driving. Like cars, social media has revolutionized our way of living and introduced profoundly powerful ways to connect us. And also like cars, it has posed risks Mark Zuckerberg likely had no idea about when he was developing Facebook in his Harvard dorm room.
As we continue to integrate technology into all aspects of our lives, most studies show that the more time we spend on social media the worse off we are. Not only can it lead to a decrease in happiness, it can also trigger feelings of jealousy and social isolation. Some studies have found that taking a break from social media can actually improve psychological health.
Psychologists have known for a long time that social comparison is one of the fundamental barriers to our sense of well-being. It’s hard to be happy if we are constantly comparing our lives to those around us or if we enter every experience with an eye toward Instagram-worthy shots that will win the approval of others. That behavior places control of our happiness in someone else’s hands, or in this case, someone else’s “Like” button.
Given how pervasive — and addictive — social media has become, what are the “rules of the road” we can follow to avoid its harmful effects without going cold turkey?
Don’t Instagram under the influence . . . of feelings. Don’t open up your social-media feed when you are feeling down. If negativity is already invading your thoughts and feelings, the social comparison from others’ pictures and posts will only send you spiraling downward in a negative thinking cycle.
Note how often you use it and how you feel immediately after. One of the best ways to modify behavior is to observe it. Try this each day for a week: Keep track of how much time you spend on social media and how you felt each time you logged off. Better? Worse? Still bored? Hold yourself accountable for the amount of time you’re spending on platforms (it’s more than you think) and how it makes you feel. You’ll become more motivated to cut out negative habits if you are fully aware of their hidden costs — your time and happiness.
Replace it with something else you can control. If you’re feeling bored or lonely, you can get the technology fix you crave another way. Instead of getting sucked into the social media trap, go for a round of Trivia Crack, watch a YouTube video or scroll through a news app. Although the number of likes and comments our posts get may feel good in the moment, waiting for external validation is not a good recipe for sustainable happiness. Find something you have control over and can initiate on your own. Do something nice for a friend, go for a run, take a nap, cook a meal or practice gratitude.
Realize that social media is like Netflix. We all binge on media. But just like “Riverdale” isn’t real life, neither is Facebook or Instagram. TV shows and movies consist of actors who are playing parts to tell a story. Social media is, in effect, our own personal show. Everyone is telling a particular story — one they also happen to produce, direct, write and star in. As you are scrolling through posts and pictures, remind yourself — it’s not real life. At the very least it’s not someone’s complete life.
Social media can connect us to others in wonderful ways, just like cars can — unless we use them when we are blitzed or reeling. When you’re looking for a virtual thumbs-up in the form of a heart or a smile, instead of using your phone to post an experience to your newsfeed, scroll through your contacts and call someone to tell them about it. Catching up over FaceTime with an actual friend will go much further for your happiness than even 1,000 likes from your followers.